A MUSICAL VACATION IN LONDON
A recent trip to London affirmed all my previous recollections about music in this city: London is simply a classical music lover’s ‘heaven’. Not only are there multiple concerts on each day, but all the most distinguished soloists and conductors show up regularly, so the quality level of the average concert is by far the highest in the world. There are 6 major orchestras in the city, with frequent visits by distinguished European orchestras as well. The ‘holy grail’ of piano and voice recitals, as well as chamber music, is Wigmore Hall, which now manages to stage over 300 concerts a year.
There are also very few off-periods for London music; there might be a slight slowdown during the early summer but this just anticipates the BBC ‘Proms’, the great festival of more than 60 concerts running from late July to early September where much of music’s ‘royalty’ shows up to participate. This year highlights Wagner’s complete ‘Ring’ cycle conducted by Daniel Barenboim and features 18 world premieres of new works.
People often talk about how expensive London is, but they often forget how expensive Vancouver is. No more than 35 minutes from the city’s core, one can indeed buy an elegant house for the same price as one pays in Vancouver. Of course, one can spend a fortune on anything in downtown London, but one doesn’t have to. There are certainly the most lavish hotels available but there is so much reasonable accommodation ($200-250 a night) very close by. I always suggest the area slightly west of the core (Marble Arch, Paddington, Queensway), since it is more peaceful and ‘green’ with the massive Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens simply inviting you to go for a walk. One will be convinced that no city in the world has as much parkland close to its core. Still there are all the shopping and dining amenities at your doorstep. I found the prices in stores and supermarkets in general lower than Vancouver, with average food quality higher. It is only a short walk to the famed Oxford Street, and both Wigmore Hall and Royal Albert Hall (the site of the BBC Proms) are pretty close by. In any case, a very short ride on the ‘tube’ will get you anywhere you need to go.
An important attraction of London’s musical scene is that concert tickets are very inexpensive. Unlike other music capitals such as Vienna, one can find outstanding seats at the two dominant symphony halls, the Royal Festival Hall and the Barbican for under $50 a ticket (at current exchange rates) and very acceptable balcony seating could be as low as $20. Prime seats are sometimes sold as ‘rush’ tickets for around $20. Very good seats at Wigmore Hall would run no more than $30. One of the reasons that one does not have to spend much for an enjoyable concert experience is that so much money has already been spent to improve acoustics in these concert venues, so you can seemingly hear everything from just about anywhere. I find the recent refurbishment of the Royal Festival Hall little short of amazing.
Our first day after the flight was a Sunday, so it was a typical tourist day wandering aimlessly around the city, walking down Oxford Street then making our way towards Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery. Before we knew it, we were at the River Thames, with Southbank Centre, the London ‘Eye’ and Royal Festival Hall only a short train-bridge walk away. So we ended up at the concert hall as if drawn by an invisible magnet. Just relaxing in the open spaces of this setting -- very ‘festival-like’ with thousands of people milling around -- and leisurely looking over the concert literature of the three main orchestras performing here, the Philharmonia Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, I suddenly realized that there was a concert about to begin in under ten minutes. This featured none other than one of the greatest Russian violinists of our time, Vadim Repin, with the Philharmonia Orchestra. So we rushed to get tickets. Like magic, a gentleman came up to us in line and offered us two seats for almost nothing. So our concert experience began!
Repin gave a pretty commanding performance of the Bruch G-minor Concerto, bringing out its lines with a greater strength and complexity than one usually hears. The violinist was alertly accompanied by the young Japanese conductor Kazuki Yamada, who showed very strong orchestral control in what was his debut concert with the orchestra. In fact, not long after the opening Les Preludes by Liszt, I was simply amazed at what this orchestra could do, especially for a conductor they had never seen before. They played difficult passages so easily; they could spring from the softest playing to the most explosive outbursts in an instant, and the strings could bow so quickly to generate intensity. Maestro Myung-whun Chung gave me some insight on this: London orchestras face different conductors every night, so they have to be flexible and respond instantly to anything required of them. They have learned to be perfectly adaptable machines that can play their hearts out for each new conductor that comes along. Yamada finished the program with Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, a performance full of energy, and stunningly brilliant and frenzied at the end, but not fully responsive to the work’s melancholy.
The next morning we were off to Wigmore Hall, for the BBC ‘live’ lunchtime concert featuring Ukranian/ Australian pianist, Alexander Gavrylyuk. Just walking into Wigmore Hall fills one with history. Built in 1901, all of the greatest musicians of the 20th C. have performed here. It is worthwhile
going downstairs to look at all the photos. As with many ‘live’ broadcasts, the announcer actually comes on stage to talk about the programme, and the obvious message to the audience is ‘Don’t cough’, and heaven help it if a cell phone goes off. Winner of the Artur Rubinstein Competition in 2005, Gavrylyuk was actually called in on short notice for this concert, but what a talent he is! His performance of two Rachmaninoff Preludes and Moussorsky’s heavyweight Pictures at an Exhibition were simply riveting. The weight and power of some of his playing is almost too much to believe, yet he can be very tender and playful too. He is so intense in expression; his characterization of the music can only be called vivid. Fortunately, Vancouver audiences will get to see this stunning pianist play the Rachmaninoff Concertos with the VSO in a three concert series next March.
The following night featured the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under its music director Charles Dutoit, performing Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust. This was a real treat; ever since his long tenure with the Montreal Symphony starting in the 1980’s, Dutoit has exhibited complete mastery of French
composers. And masterful is the only way to describe this beautiful performance: wonderfully balanced, sensitive, and explosively dramatic when called for. The singing was strong and expressive too, almost operatic in its characterization of the story-line. Bass Sir Willard White gave such a feeling account of his part and everything just flowed from beginning to end. A performance to remember and fortunately Dutoit’s classic recording of this work still can be found on Decca CD 444-812-2.
It was the London Philharmonic’s turn the following evening, and I was hoping to see their very visible and magnetic young music director, Vladamir Jurowski, in action. But this was not to be. Instead we had another BBC live concert, with the enticing combination of Vaughan Williams powerful Symphony No. 4 and Sir Michael Tippett’s moving oratorio Child of Our Time, the orchestra conducted by the young conductor/ composer Ryan Wigglesworth. The orchestra played magnificently but both performances seemed emotionally thin. The Vaughan Williams had lots of brilliance and momentum but very little soul while the Tippett simply did not build to the overwhelming emotional resolution that it should. Fortunately, the following night the Philharmonia Orchestra returned to deliver a most satisfying concert under the very talented young Czech conductor, Jakub Hrusa. We had very good seats for this and I was amazed again at just how much precision and fire this conductor could pull out of the orchestra. Violinist Frank Peter Zimmerman may have a smaller tone than others but his intelligence and technical finesse gave us a really fine reading of Shostakovich’s always-involving Violin Concerto No. 1. With the choir and orchestra collaborating to achieve great volumes of sound, the closing Alexander Nevsky by Prokofiev was the spectacle that it should be.
The above concerts were in Royal Festival Hall, and no music vacation in London is complete without also visiting Barbican Hall, the home of London’s premiere orchestra, The London Symphony Orchestra, directed by the celebrated Valery Gergiev. Unfortunately, the LSO was touring at this time, so we had to settle for a chamber concert in the Barbican with the Britten Sinfonia with wonderful tenor, Ian Bostridge. This was a very special treat in its own way: I have never heard singing of such beauty or refinement in Schubert’s newly-discovered orchestral songs or in Benjamin Britten’s Nocturne. This small orchestra plays beautifully.
The big thing that I took from this vacation is how refreshing it is to be in a city where classical music is still very much part of everyday life. Given the low ticket prices, it is truly accessible to all and can be enjoyed by all. It can stimulate and inspire you on an ongoing basis, and you are always in the presence of people who enjoy classical music as much as you do. I also enjoyed the variety of the concerts; each venue and artist/ orchestra seemingly produced an individual and memorable musical experience for me. Now is anyone ready to book tickets to London?
© Geoffrey Newman July 2013